Perhaps We Don’t Fulfill Each Other’s Fantasies*

ExpectationsAn interesting comment exchange with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me to thinking about the sets of expectations we have when we read work by a familiar author. Often those expectations help us to feel comfortable with that that author’s books and I think that’s in part because we know the kind of story to expect. Often, there’s also a group of ‘regular’ characters we get to know and enjoy.  Before I go on, I’ll give you a chance to check out Carol’s interesting blog.

Right. Back to expectations. On the one hand, that kind of familiarity can be a good thing. For the author, it means a loyal base of readers. For the reader, it means a certain confidence that what one’s about to read is probably not going to disappoint. On the other hand that kind of familiarity can be limiting. It’s treacherously easy for the author to fall into a pattern of what become ‘cookie-cutter’ plots; I’m sure we all can think of series like that. What’s more, when an author changes a character’s personality, or a plot style, or writing style, or something else important in the series, fans can be really put off. You can think of it if you like as ‘reader ownership’ – readers are attached to certain characters, a certain writing style and so on and when that changes it can feel like a personal affront. Like just about everything else, there are positives and negatives about the sort of ‘track record’ some authors build.

One of the more famous examples of this set of expectations is the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the time they first came on the scene, the Holmes stories were popular and Conan Doyle’s fan base grew and became intensely loyal (as we all know, there are still many clubs, societies and so on that are dedicated to Holmes). Readers knew what to expect from a story and eagerly consumed each instalment. And then Conan Doyle had Holmes go over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem. As Holmes fans know, this outraged readers. They had developed a set of expectations about these stories and had a sense of ownership of the character as you might say. In fact, readers were so upset that Conan Doyle felt obliged to bring Holmes back, which he did in The Adventure of the Empty House.

At the time that Agatha Christie wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, readers of detective stories had certain assumptions about what to expect, not just from Christie but from the genre in general. For instance there would be a murder, there would be a group of likely suspects and there would be a sleuth who would unmask the killer. Christie had followed that pattern in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links so readers had a set of expectations about what would happen in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But in this case Christie didn’t meet those expectations. She did something completely different and that choice upset a lot of readers. She was accused of ‘not playing fair’ and of breaking the rules of crime fiction if I can put it that way. In hindsight her decision has turned out to be a wise one. Today The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be one of her best works. But that’s not how her readers felt at the time.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series won her millions of devoted fans. Her sleuth, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, his love interest Polly Duncan and the other regular characters in the series became favourites for a lot of readers who felt they had a certain amount of ownership. Readers came to expect certain kinds of plots, certain kinds of events and so on. But towards the end of the series many people saw some changes in the novels and they didn’t like it. For instance, Braun’s last novel The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers got quite a lot of negative press. In fact several reviews suggested that she hadn’t written the book herself. To be honest, I read that kind of thing about the last few of her novels. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I do know that even her devoted fans felt put off by what they saw as changes to the style, the focus and so on.

Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ featuring PI Kinsey Millhone also has a very devoted group of readers. Fans from all over the world have eagerly followed Millhone’s adventures since 1982 when A is for Alibi was published. And 22 books later, Millhone still has a huge following. And yet, not all of her fans have been happy about all of the developments in the stories. And this is what got Carol and me ‘talking’ about reader expectations. Readers have come to expect a certain writing style, a certain kind of plot, certain behaviours and so on from this series. Graftotn has experimented with different points of view, different kinds of pacing in the stories and other changes that haven’t always been well-received, and part of the reason for that may be that readers’ expectations have run up against the author’s choices. Despite some reader disappointment, I know that millions of readers (I’m one of them) are going to be interested in what Grafton does with Kinsey Millhone #23. W is for When….? 😉

Camilla Läckberg created a very popular series featuring biographer Ericka Falck and her husband police detective Patrik Hedström. Beginning with The Ice Princess, this series has followed Falck and Hedström through several different criminal investigations, as well as developments in their personal lives. Many people (and I’m one of them) love the fishing-village setting, the mystery plots and the pacing and action. But as time has gone by, some readers have felt that the series has gotten away from what they saw as its initial ‘edginess.’ After The Ice Princess, readers had certain expectations for the kinds of plots that future novels would have, and the focus of those novels. And those readers have been a bit put off by what they see as the increasing focus on the domestic sides of these characters’ lives. That of course is a matter of taste; there are readers who really enjoy that aspect of the series. That’s why it’s such a good example I think of the way readers feel a sense of investment in a series and have very personal reactions when they feel that their expectations aren’t being met.

The whole question of readers’ expectations raises the issue of just exactly what authors owe their readers. The author/reader relationship is a complicated one really. Should authors write in the style and with the patterns that their fans have come to expect (and keep loyal readers but risk ‘sameyness’)? Should they innovate (and stay fresh, but  risk making readers cranky and creating books that simply aren’t good)? What about readers? Do readers really have a stake in series they love? To what extent? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re a reader how do you react when you sense a change in what an author is doing? If you’re a writer, what role do reader expectations play in what you write?

Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration and the great conversation.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls. C’mon now, didn’t you expect a Billy Joel lyric from me?  😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camilla Läckberg, Lilian Jackson Braun, Sue Grafton

39 responses to “Perhaps We Don’t Fulfill Each Other’s Fantasies*

  1. Margot, I agree completely about the last few “Cat Who…” mysteries. They could indeed have been written by someone else – they were poor (or even non-existent) mysteries, characters changed, even Q’s “love interest” suddenly went away. I thought they were very disappointing.

    As for the broader question of audience expectations, you make excellent points; it surely must be challenging for an author to keep meeting those expectations without falling into the trap of sameness.

    Of course, sometimes an author uses his audience’s expectations to surprise. I can think of series where the detective (or one of the other major characters) is suddenly killed – I still remember how shocked I was when I found Nicolas Freeling doing that to one of his early series detectives. And perhaps the best example of an author using a kind of reverse psychology is in the play version of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth. Without going into possible spoier details (for goodness sake, if anyone has NOT seen it, don’t miss it the next time a theater group does the play!), let’s just say that one of the biggest surprise twists in the play really only works because of a particular behavior which is peculiar to an audience IN A THEATER – the author relies on that behavior to help set up his audience for the surprise. It’s another kind of expectation – and another way for an author to use it.

    • Les – Right you are about Sleuth – A perfect example of the way the author can use audience expectations. And other authors have done a similar thing in using reader expectations to lead the reader right down the proverbial garden path. That takes talent and it takes the reader either being unaware of her or his expectations, or being willing to let the author lead the way.
      As to the Cat Who… mysteries, you are far from the only one who feels that way about those last few.

  2. That is an interesting question, and one I have mixed feelings about. I am sure a talented and creative writer wants to strike out in different directions and doesn’t want to be stifled by expectations (of readers or publishers).

    I like it when an author can continue a series but keep it fresh. In the S. J. Rozan series, she has variety by switching the story from Lydia Chin’s point of view in one book to Bill Smith in the next. Jane Haddam’s long series with Gregor Demarkian started out with a holiday theme, but always had serious crimes and social issues to spotlight. Jill McGown’s wonderful police procedural series continued with the same main characters throughout, but had varied approaches to telling the story in each novel.

    I am sure there are going to be lots of interesting examples in the comments here from others.

    • Tracy – It really is a tricky balance to meet readers’ (and others’) expectations while at the same time not letting one’s work get stale. I think both Håkan Nesser and Arnaldur Indriðason have been successful at varying what they do while still doing the things that readers have come to love. And in both cases, the authors have varied the characters who ‘take the lead’ in an investigation and therefore, changed the voice. But at the same time the novels have the elements that made them popular in the first place.
      I’m looking forward to what I learn from other comments too.

      • Glad to hear that. I just got books by both of the authors you mention, and I had just been trying to remember which series I had read about that had different policemen featured from book to book. Of course the McBain series is like that, I hear.

  3. I’m a big fan of Reginald Hill’s Dalziell and Pascoe mysteries, and I also think they changed out of all recognition over the years he wrote them. The first couple were very routine police procedurals, entertaining enough but not with any great depth of character. I couldn’t spell out exactly how the changes occurred through the books, but by the time you get to something like Recalled to Life, Pictures of Perfection and The Wood Beyond they are in a difference world altogether.

    • Moira – I know what you mean. That series got much more character-driven as the novels continued. And I feel that Hill added more sub-plots too. Definiely the series changed over time. But in that case, honestly, I don’t mind at all.

  4. I agree about the Dalziel books. They really became almost literary fiction rather than crime towards the end, and I loved watching that happen. The whole Dalziel series is, I think, my favourite as a complete body of work and Reginald Hill is sadly missed.

    But I’m struggling with the changes Stuart MacBride is making in the Logan McRae books – they’ve lost their grittiness and become much more comedic. For me, it’s not working, though plenty of other readers seem to be enjoying it. You asked how does a reader react – well, I’ll probably stick with the next McRae book but if it goes in the same direction, I’ll regretfully give up on them. And I’ll feel like I’ve lost an old friend.

    • FictionFan – Your feelings about the Logan McRae series really reflect the kind of reader involvement I had in mind when I wrote this post. Readers such as yourself who like that grittiness came to expect it. When the series moved away from that it’s perfectly understandable that you’d mind it terribly. Of course as you say there are plenty of readers who like the comic element and it’d be quite difficult to balance those elements to everyone’s liking. And that’s the other challenge the author faces. One can’t please everyone. But I know the feeling of sadly bidding farewell to a series that has just changed in a way one can’t enjoy.
      I’m glad too that you mentioned the Dalziel/Pascoe series. Such a landmark series in so many ways and yes, it did get more literary as it went on. My thinking (‘though I’ve no hard evidence for this) is that Hill rather enjoyed exploring that aspect of his writing. That’s one of those series that I think is worth recommending to anyone who’s a crime fiction fan and/or wants to understand the genre. It’s a classic.

      • I think you’re right that Hill enjoyed the literary aspect of his writing. He had a fascination for words, even using them as plot points in a couple of the later novels. He was pretty much the only crime writer I felt I needed a dictionary to hand for! And he loved to play with the form of the novel – you never knew what to expect in terms of location, atmosphere, dark or light – but because Dalziel and Pascoe stayed true to character he could get away with playing with everything else.

        I think it’s time for a re-read… 🙂

        • FictionFan – Oh, I think Dalziel/Pascoe novels are always worth a re-read. And you’re right about Hill. He really did feel free to experiment and when he did it, it worked. A big part of the reason for that (in my opinion anyway) is that first, you’re about that his characters stayed consistent even as they grew; also, he kept everything believable. Perhaps it’s just I but if a story doesn’t ring true, whatever form of the novel, it falls flat. Hill never let that happen.

  5. So glad you mentioned Arnaldur Indriðason – I loved this series – I loved the “otherness” of the landscape and a style that was considered (is that the word I am looking for) and I loved the character development in the series. Maybe our expectations are greater when we read all an author offers in one setting ( which I have been doing a lot of lately) I read the Detective Erlendur series in a week , I heavily invested my time in this authors work and thus had an expectation of the next book….so is our change in reading habits, with the accessibility of ebooks – allowing us to consume books cheaply and rapidly influencing our expectations of an author?

    • Carol – I like the Indriðason series very much myself, and I think your choice of the word ‘considered’ is quite apt. Each phrase is, I think, carefully planned. And I agree that the characters develop quite well as the novels go on. I like the story arcs for that reason and I like the fact that occasionally another detective on Erlendur’s team gets to lead the investigation. That too adds to their characters.
      You ask an interesting question too about the way our reading habits may influence our investment in a series. Books have gotten expensive in many places but they are often easily accessible and in e-format one can download a whole series. I think if a person does read a lot (or all) of a series in one stretch it can give one a sense of ownership. Certainly as you say when we focus a lot of attention on an author we develop a set of assumptions about what to expect. That makes sense.

  6. First of all, thanks for putting Billy Joel in my head 🙂

    This is a very interesting topic because I’ve been both devoted to or turned off by series as they go on. I still read Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware books (over 20 in that series), but I grew tired of series by Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich. And I think some authors are great at stand-alones after writing a series while others aren’t as successful (I have to think of some examples here).

    And as my mind is drifting, I have one other thought, and that is Stephen King’s Misery.

    • Rebecca – Oh, yes! Misery! Certainly an object lesson for any author *shudder.* As you say, there are some authors who can keep readers engaged over a very long time (you’re not the only one who still richly enjoys Kellerman’s series). There are others who’ve changed their styles, etc., so much that it’s not surprising they’ve lost readers. You make an interesting point about standalone authors too. Some are outstanding and some aren’t. I know for instance that Harlan Coben has written both his Myron Bolitar series and standalones, and those standalones have gotten a great reception. Thanks for bringing that point up.
      Oh, and I consider it a public service to put Billy Joel music into people’s minds… 😉

  7. Yet another great topic, Margot. And the Billy Joel song you’ve chosen to supply the title line is one of my favourites.

    When it comes to crime fiction series, it’s the merit in the writing, plotting and characterisation that keep me engaged, rather than the familiarity. I was recently impressed reading Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti novel, The Golden Egg — staggeringly, the 22nd in the series — in which she manages to combine all the familiar elements of characters and settings with an expertly crafted story. Likewise, I returned to Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series last year after a break and very much enjoyed the darker shade to the 19th instalment Unnatural Habits. Carol O’Connell keeps me engaged with her Kathy Mallory novels, as does Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series.

    Both Michael Dibdin and Martin Cruz Smith in their Aurelio Zen and Arkady Renko series respectively kept it fresh and engaging by combining credible character development with changes in (often exotic) locations. The work of both these authors has influenced my own Jayne Keeney series, though I can only aspire to their popularity and longevity.

    • Angela – Thank you – And I’ve always liked that song very much myself. See? When it comes to Billy Joel, there’s something for everyone :-).
      You make a well-taken point that authors keep readers loyal and win new fans by creating characters and plotting and so on that are absorbing. And I’m glad you mentioned Donna Leon as an example because she has done I think an expert job through the years of creating a cast of characters that we care about and weaving stories that keep readers turning pages and clicking. In that case as much as anything else it’s the storytelling and the group of very real people who populate the novels. Oh, and the delicious food hurts not at all.
      I like the other authors you’ve mentioned too, and I think one of the things that they have in common is that they allow the characters to develop. There’s a richness to those characters so that it’s little wonder readers stay interested. I’m thinking especially of the depth of character of Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko and the interesting personality of Aurelio Zen. They are very human and that adds to those series. You’re right too that certain innovations (e.g. shifting locations and so on) can add a little freshness to a story without taking away from the original appeal of the stories.

  8. col

    There’s a few series I’ve grown tired of over the years and just given up on. Robert B. Parker and Spencer bored me after about 20 books. James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux, well I just stopped seeing him as a credible character. Great author, superb writer but I couldn’t keep believing in his main man.
    Connelly and Bosch, I’ve wavered on, through a few iffy books in my opinion, but here I’ve kept the faith for some reason.

    Out of curiousity, did you enjoy THE STRANGER? This was the last book I read and my first Lackberg, it didn’t really impress me to be truthful.

    • Col – It’s interesting that you would find yourself still drawn to Michael Connelly’s novels. TO me, that’s a sign of a really talented author. It means in my opinion that he’s continued with the writing style and so on that got you interested in the first place but at the same time, has innovated enough so that his characters and plots haven’t become stale. I feel the same way about him actually.
      As to The Stranger, I’m sorry to hear it didn’t impress you. I enjoyed it but it is different to The Ice Princess, which was, I think, just a little edigier.

  9. kathy d.

    I have to concur on Guido Brunetti’s latest story, which was excellent. It seemed as if Donna Leon was inspired to write a very good book in “The Golden Egg,” with a lot of circumspection and thinking. Also, quite a bit of character development and Guido’s trying to understand relqtionships at the Questura, which had never been examined. Even Paola and Guido’s relationship is unraveled a bit more.
    I will agree that readers expect certain things from a series and from its main characters.
    Years ago, I read a post at an author’s blog in reaction to her latest series installment, in which a major character — and love interest of the protagonist — had been murdered. The writer was hounded and harassed and received a lot of angry emails and letters.
    One incident stands out: A reader said that he was so mad that he burned the book and buried it in his backward!
    So, if that doesn’t show how invested readers get in series, I don’t know what does.
    I couldn’t finish the book as I was fond of that character, too.
    Also, I read Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series for years. I have a lot of the earlier paperbacks and kept up with it. And then McCone changed from working at a legal collective to running her own agency. Lots of great characters were gone. Then she got involved in all kinds of intrigues and global issues and married a guy with military and espionage background.
    Everything changed. I lost interest.
    But I agree about Arnaldur Indridason: love his books, including those starring Erlendur’s team members.

    • Kathy – I’ve read some stories too of that author and what happened to that character. Readers had a certain connection to the character and a certain set of expectations and…they were violated. So many readers got so upset. You’re right that it shows just how much ownership readers can feel about a series. And I’m glad you mentioned Sharon McCone. That series is a long-running one and you’re right that a lot about it changed when McCone opened her own agency. And yes, her personal life changed too. It became a very different series to what it had been and I can see why you feel as you do.

  10. I’m now following Carols blog! Thank you Margot for a great recommend.
    It’s a really difficult one this. I’m mostly a reader and I’ve seen big changes in two different series I read. One worked out well and the other didn’t.

    Karin Slaughter killed off a main character and moved the other to a different setting with a host of new characters and it’s surprisingly worked really well for her.

    Cornwell on the other hand, killed off a character and because of the backlash, ended up regretting it and bringing him back. I heard her speak on this once and she did bring him back because she listened to the readers and regretted what she’d done.

    I think they have to try these things or they go stale. They have to flex their creative brains. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think you could say it should or shouldn’t be done. It’s more of a fluid relationship. Some trust either side I’d say.

    • Rebecca – That’s an interesting way to put it. There has to be a certain amount of trust on either side, or at least a certain amount of respect. As you say, authors do sometimes try new things to keep from going stale. On the other hand, loyal readers look forward to certain things. So balancing that is a challenge. Thanks too for your examples of cases where it worked and didn’t work for you. It’s so interesting how the two cases of killing off a character ended up working out so differently!
      Oh, and I’m so glad you’re following Carol’s blog; it’s terrific I think.

  11. Margot: I have found my expectations with regard to change come from whether the sleuth ages in the series.

    When a character grows older as Joanne Kilbourn ages in the Gail Bowen series from an active professor raising a family to a retired professor involved with her grandchildren I expect change. No credible sleuth could age 20 years without changes in personality and the people around them.

    If a character does not age such as Nero Wolfe I expect their personality and those around them to be consistent. In real life change happens over time. I was content that Wolfe remained the same person through 40 years of stories and novels.

    • Bill – You know, that makes a lot of sense. In real life, ageing brings changes of all kinds, so it makes sense that those changes ought to be reflected in stories about characters who age. But if an author chooses a ‘frozen’ sort of timeline, then it wouldn’t make sense for those changes to be there. In both cases it’s a matter of staying true to what you’d expect from a given character.

  12. I don’t mind when a writer plays around with a series (from memory I think Lee Child uses 1st and 3rd person in different books). I do hate it though when, to inject life into a series, they kill off one of my favourite characters – i.e. Elizabeth George, Laura Wilson

    • Sarah – There’s definitely a difference between making structural changes (e.g. point of view, adding flashbacks, etc.) and giving the characters major personality and other changes. Or killing off favourite characters. That really strikes at the core of the series.

  13. Interesting topic and one I’ve thought a lot about. For one of my series, I told my editor that I wanted to do a country house murder (off-site of my usual setting). She was uncomfortable with that because she said readers grow very attached to settings and regular characters and usually are distressed with “road trip” books because the regulars aren’t all there and the setting is different. But! She let me do it (comes out in Dec.). As a concession, I had it be the same town and many of the same characters.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, that sounds like a really effective way to balance what readers have come to expect with what you as the the author want to do. It’s not easy to strike that balance and I give you credit for finding a way to do it. And I like country-house murders, so I’ll bet this one’ll be great. And it’s a good example of why a productive relationship with one’s editor/publisher is so important.

  14. One of my expectations regards the level of violence I will find with an author. I trust them to be consistent with this and not lead me down a garden path into something I don’t want to read.

    • Patti – Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I’m the same way about level of violence. In fact, there are a few authors I don’t read any more because of having felt led down that path.

  15. kathy d.

    Yes! A definite reason to stop reading a series is if the violence is amped up. I read a book in a series, which I had sampled, and it became so violent that the lone vigilante was relishing killing two women. It was absurd, and I never read that series again, written by a well-known thriller writter.

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